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A Brief History of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Course

As the saying goes, “The sun never sets on a Robert Trent Jones golf course.” Although said jokingly, there is a lot of truth to this considering this man had a hand in the design of nearly 500 golf courses in 35 countries and 40 states. One of the iconic golf architect’s courses is right here on Cornell’s campus, and it’s the home course for the Big Red varsity team.

Jones lived in a small town in central England before migrating with his family to the United States at five years old. He then spent the rest of his childhood outside Rochester, New York, where he became a skilled and avid golfer. At only 16 he was the low amateur in the 1927 Canadian Open, yet, despite becoming a scratch golfer, he wasn’t able to play professionally due to health problems. Later, he went on to attend Cornell University where he pursued classes in a variety of disciplines such as landscape architecture, horticulture, surveying, public speaking, and economics.

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Jones created for himself the country’s first program dedicated to golf architecture through the variety of Cornell’s offerings. While studying here he also designed the back nine holes of Cornell’s Robert Trent Jones golf course, which opened in 1941. He then came back to finish the first nine holes 13 years later. Originally, the course–which was designed to be 3500 yards and was given a budget of $25,000–was meant to spark widespread interest for the sport among the student body. Jones described the project by saying, “The course when played will acquire the use of every club in the bag. Dub and expert alike will have their chance on this unique course.” Jones also explained that the course was designed to be a difficult par but an easy bogey with the architectural style of the course as 50% strategic, 30% heroic, and 20% penal.

Jones has also maintained a strong relationship with the university, be it through establishing a scholarship fund, donating to his fraternity house, or keeping up to date with course renovations. For this reason, Jones was adamant that upon his death his papers and belongings be kept at Cornell. Now, 70 years worth of information and hundreds of boxes containing mementos, personal documents, and course designs are housed at the Rare and Manuscript Collections in Olin Library.

The Big Red golf team first match at the course designed by Robert Trent Jones was on May 14, 1941 when they competed against Syracuse. However, the team has existed since 1910, when the team had to pay its own expenses and was considered a “pick up team.” They have fielded a team almost continuously since then, with the exception of the years during World War I. Over the course of its history the Big Red has accumulated a record of 193-153-10; they have never won an Ivy League Championship.

Now, Cornell golf is synonymous with the iconic image of Robert Trent Jones, a man with a big vision, and equally big personality, who transformed the golf world without ever playing competitively at a high level. Throughout his life he remained heavily invested in Cornell, as is clear through his extensive correspondence with administrators and his dedication to his various projects. Upon realizing the trend of collegiate golf across the country Jones set out to create a course that would allow Cornellians of all skill levels that opportunity to embrace the game of golf.

He once described his approach to the sport by saying, “I believe that the vitality of the game of golf is that it offers man his own personal challenge for combat. He attacks the course and the par.” Now, Jones’ goal is realized as thousands of golfers each year battle against the course here at Cornell, the masterpiece of a proud alum.

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